Though a death certificate has been issued for Jahi McMath, many of the 13-year-old Oakland girl’s classmates still believe the “quiet leader” who laughed at jokes that weren't funny will one day return to school — if they just pray hard enough.
“The school told us that she’s not officially dead yet,” said Dymond Allen, one of Jahi's friends at EC Reems Academy of Technology and Arts in East Oakland, a public charter school that serves mostly disadvantaged kids. “And we should keep her in our prayers. I still hope. And God has the last say-so.”
The academy's chief operating officer Lisa Blair said she has tried to honor Jahi's family's wishes by telling students that their classmate may still be alive, even though doctors say she is legally and clinically dead.
The students responded with an outpouring of faith.
“Most kids are Christian here,” Blair said, “and they believe that if you continue praying, there’s always a possibility. The students understand the debate. They’re just choosing spirituality over science.”
Blair visited Children's Hospital Oakland on Jan. 5, just after Jahi's family won a court battle to keep the girl on life support and transfer her elsewhere. Blair said she "saw something” on that visit that made her believe Jahi, a quiet student who was recently elected to be a judge on student council, was not truly dead.
On Thursday, about 250 of Blair's students donned purple T-shirts emblazoned with the words “#TeamJahi” and “Keep Calm, Pray On.”
Parents were given the opportunity to have their child "opt out" of the event, but the vast majority did not, because most of them know her, Blair added.
Jahi has been part of the school's “extended” family for more than a decade. Jahi’s older sister, Jabria Milsap, now 20, graduated in 2009 as valedictorian. Her brother, Jose Llamas, is now in fourth grade at the school. Jahi's younger sister, Jordyn Johnson, is in kindergarten.
Jahi's case has ignited a furious national debate about patient rights and the definition of “brain death,” which is considered “true death” by state law.
She was declared brain dead Dec. 12, three days after suffering complications from surgery to help her sleep apnea. Her mother, Latasha “Nailah” Winkfield, said she believes in God and that as long as her daughter’s heart is beating – even if it is with the aid of a machine – then Jahi is alive.
Her family fought for the right to keep her on life support, and was eventually allowed to move Jahi to an undisclosed Catholic facility that the coroner's spokesman said is "out of state."
The family’s attorney says she is now receiving nutrition through tubes, despite medical testimony filed (PDF) in court that most of Jahi’s bodily functions have ceased.
Bioethicists, scientists, lawyers, doctors, religious leaders and others continue to argue the legal, medical and ethical aspects of her condition.
The ongoing debate prompted Blair to help her pupils discuss opposing perspectives.
The point was "to teach students to make informed decisions, to debate the scientific and social perspectives," Blair explained.
One parent, who asked not to be identified, said that while her daughters both believe that Jahi might recover, she is a “realist” who, if she bases "everything on science," believes that "Jahi has passed on."
Still, she acknowledged that it’s very hard telling her daughters that, and because she, too, is spiritual and believes "in the power of prayer" And that those prayers might just "turn this around for the good and Jahi will be back with her family and friends."
As Jahi’s friends pray, they are trying to bring back a girl who dreamed of becoming a cheerleader but was a quiet sort of leader. She was recently appointed as a judge for her student government, and often helped her friends without attracting a lot of attention.
Jose, Jahi’s 10-year-old brother, said his sister “did everything for me."
"She washed my plate. She washed my clothes,” he said.
Another good friend, Quiela Temple, said Jahi “laughed a lot, making others laugh more…even when the joke wasn’t funny.”
Quiela and her sister, Quianni, were among a few friends Jahi invited to the Santa Cruz Boardwalk and a hotel sleepover in October, when she celebrated her 13th birthday.
Jahi’s friends hope that if they pray hard enough she’ll get to celebrate her 14th.
“I don’t think she passed away,” Dymond said. “I just hope my friend gets better and comes back to school.”